So prevalent are the high-end Indian restaurants clustered around Mayfair these days that it’s easy to forget that a couple of decades ago, somewhere like Tamarind would have looked a total outlier. So successfully have the Benareses, Gymkhanas and Jamavars of this world taken up the baton and run with it in the intervening years, that the return of such a long-serving restaurant poses something of an existential question: What does a refurbished, revamped Tamarind look like in 2019?
Per Fay Maschler: still in need of a little work. Despite an “agreeably flexible” menu long on small plates and “salads for the Mayfair ladies,” execution is too frequently off. Churi chaat is “drizzled with too much sweetness”; rabbit seekh kebab is “rather morose”; Old Delhi butter chicken is sadly lacking “layers of flavour and any smoky evidence of the tandoor.”
Add in some predictable Mayfair larceny — a £25 lunch deal undermined by “vertiginous” drinks prices — and it’s hard to feel new Tamarind is making much of a case for its being improved. “Too much deliberation” is being dedicated to pleasing a “diet-conscious” and “cash rich” clientele; somewhere along the way, vital ingredients like “joy and exuberance” have apparently “gone missing.”
For a pointer on how to reinvent a much-loved institution more successfully, look no further than The French House. Marina O’Loughlin is the latest critic to fall for its old fashioned charms: the naked Francophilia of the menu; “comforting braises”; “stout terrines.”
Chef Neil Borthwick is someone who “delights in the innate joy of ingredients,” from the “golden, honking innards” of confit garlic to the “curious, custardy allure” of calf’s brain. A particular highlight from O’Loughlin’s visit includes a “muscular brute” of an onion soup, “the whole thing completely, messily perfect”, as well as a navarin of lamb whose slow cooking results in a “stew of dreams.” Add in a “textbook” Paris-Brest to finish things off, and it’s clear The French House’s status as 2018’s most reliable dose of critical catnip is unlikely to change anytime soon. For a certain kind of diner, Borthwick’s cooking represents more than just “nostalgia”: “it’s plain love.”
There’s a similarly appealing lack of fussiness over at Harlequin on the Wandsworth Bridge Road — reviewed this week by William Sitwell, who finds a “dreamy neighbourhood restaurant” that comes pretty close to “fantasy.”
Chef James Erasmus is responsible for a monthly-changing menu “of deft and charming balance” — a deal both “generous” and “substantial” for the stated £40 price tag. Occasional moments of “sleight of hand” lift things further: cod comes with ham hock and white beans; mallard is served with dates and dukkah, resulting in “a perfect textural union” as well as “a plate of glorious harmony.” Pudding is more than decent, too, a Seville orange malva “so good” it’s enough to incite “treasonous” feelings towards its “good old British” antecedent, sticky toffee pudding. This is cooking with “its heart in the right place,” served in a “nicely” lit, “homely” room, with “eager” and “keen” staff who never teeter into “overbearing.” Harlequin may not be a “fist-pumping, star-tilting joint,” but that doesn’t mean it’s any less of a “quietly nimble, stylish and exquisite restaurant.”
Sarap at The Sun and 13 Cantons
Sarap is the new incumbent at this “culinary fame academy” — offering a “snappy” menu of Filipino fare. There’s market fish kinilaw, which entails “fat, flaking pieces of cured bream” enlivened by “the sweet, electric zing of lime-like calamansi”; there are fried chicken wings, “densely covered in vinegary banana ketchup,” packing “unusually addictive gradations of tang, salt and sweetness.”
The “unmistakable highlight,” though, is the signature lechon, slow-cooked pork belly that arrives as “a lust-making pyramid of fatty, flame-scorched pig hunks, carrying the lingering waft of lemongrass”. With a “diabolically effective” house sauce alongside, it promises much — and even if the crackling comprises a bit of a “mixed bag” — some of it requiring a bit too much of an “effortful chew” — side dishes of rice “topped in fragrant, nutty fried garlic” and “terrific, fluffy” cassava chips are enough to soften “any disappointment.” With Valentine’s Day around the corner, this “unprissy way of eating” may not make for an ideal date spot — but then again, who could argue with an evening that starts off “big-hearted” and finishes up this “intensely pleasurable”?